Roderick T. Long
Roderick T. Long

Two Cheers for Modernity

It is common for Objectivists to stress the superiority of Enlightenment culture over the cultural movements preceding and following it.

Leonard Peikoff, for example, describes the Enlightenment as a "fragile oasis of man's liberated intellect bounded on one side by the desert of the Dark and Middle Ages ... and on the other by the jungle of post-Kantian irrationalism." (The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 102.) More recently, David Kelley has distinguished three contemporary subcultures. One is the "Enlightenment" or "modernist" culture, embracing the 18th-century values on which the United States was founded - reason, freedom, personal happiness, and industrial capitalism - and represented today by the Objectivist movement. The other two, both arising in different ways out of the 19th-century Romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment, are on the one hand the "pre-Enlightenment" or "premodernist" culture (harking back to the essentially medieval values of faith, duty, and patriarchal authority, and represented today by religious fundamentalists both Christian and Muslim) and on the other hand the "postmodernist" or "post-Enlightenment" culture (promoting relativism, egalitarianism, environ-mentalism, and nihilism, and represented today by the academic Left). Defending Enlightenment culture against its medievalist and postmodernist rivals, Kelley maintains, is the chief task of today's Objectivist movement. (See David Kelley, "The State of the Culture," Navigator 1, no. 1, September 1997, and "The Party of Modernity," Cato Policy Report 25, no. 3 May/June 2003).

I wish to introduce a cautionary note. Certainly on many major issues, the Enlightenment culture is right, and the medievalists and postmodernists are wrong. But from the standpoint of Objectivist principles, is it really true that defenders of the Enlightenment have nothing to learn from the medievalist and postmodernist critiques?

Objectivists typically give the Enlightenment high marks for its attitude toward reason, by contrast with the eras preceding and following. But the scoring procedure is suspect. Late medieval advocates of reason, like Thomas Aquinas, are treated as forerunners of the Enlightenment, as implicit rebels against the medieval worldview; their points are in effect awarded to the modernist rather than the premodernist party. Likewise, 18th-century thinkers who attempted to draw limits to the effectiveness of reason - e.g. Rousseau, Hume, Burke, Kant - are treated as enemies of the Enlightenment; their demerits get assigned to the postmodernist rather than to the modernist camp.

Yet Aquinas is a paradigmatically medieval thinker, having far more in common with Augustine than with the Founding Fathers. (Augustine, incidentally, is by no means the despiser of reason depicted in Objectivist lore; indeed, we all owe an incalculable debt to Augustine for championing the Greek philosophical tradition against those Christians who sought to jettison all pagan thought. Without Augustine, there would have been no Aquinas.) And Rousseau, Hume, Burke, and Kant are, likewise, paradigmatically Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment was not, first and foremost, an age of reason; rather it was, in Kant's words, an "age of criticism." The Enlightenment directed its critical eye against many things Objectivists would agree deserve criticism; but its critical gaze also fell on reason itself. Enlightenment thinkers in general were far more skeptical concerning the powers of reason than were their medieval predecessors. They also took their rebellion against medievalism to be a rebellion against Aristotle - rejecting, e.g., Aquinas' direct realism in favour of representationalism and the prior certainty of consciousness, a move that forced them toward the false alternative of rationalism versus skepticism. Basing ethics on reason was also widely regarded as an undesirable vestige of medievalism; the dominant Enlightenment view (as seen in, e.g., Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson) was that the basis of ethics was sentiment (i.e., emotion).

Rand's own view - clearly expressed in For the New Intellectual, and echoed in Peikoff's Ominous Parallels, chapter 5 - was that the Enlightenment culture was characterised by two simultaneous but opposite movements: on the one hand it was developing the implications of the proto-Objectivist principles it had inherited from the late-medieval revival of Aristoteleanism, while on the other hand it was undermining the philosophical underpinnings of those principles. I think that diagnosis is exactly right. (Indeed, I would maintain that the philosophy of Enlightenment has a dual legacy: both the Aristoteleanism of Aquinas and the anti-Aristoteleanism of the 1277 Condemnation; the latter dealt the primacy of existence a blow from which it never fully recovered.) But in that case, shouldn't our evaluation of the Enlightenment take account of both aspects - the constructive and the destructive? Rather than cheering for the Enlightenment and booing the Middle Ages, our approach should be to applaud the late-medieval period for its Aristotelean aspects while pointing out the secularist and libertarian implications which the medievals failed to see - and at the same time to applaud the Enlightenment for developing those secularist and libertarian implications while pointing out that the Enlightenment thinkers were drawing checks against an increasingly empty account.

It might be replied that it is a mistake to focus specifically on the technical philosophers when what deserves praise is the overall cultural atmosphere of the Enlightenment. Fair enough. But if that's the standard for evaluating Enlightenment culture, we should apply the same standard in evaluating medieval culture. Once we broaden our focus from the medieval philosophers (who were, after all, mostly monks and priests) to medieval culture generally, including the rich, exuberant, imaginative, secular atmosphere of medieval literature, with its focus on romantic love and heroic adventure, the picture begins to look less dark. (And if you think medieval art is about nothing but crucifixion and self-flagellation, take a look at some of the hauntingly beautiful treasures in France's Musée du Moyen Age:

In any case, while it is true that Enlightenment philosophers tended to celebrate personal, this-worldly happiness more than the medieval philosophers did, that achievement must be balanced against the fact that Enlightenment thinkers were far readier to accept the possibility of conflicts between morality and self-interest than were their medieval predecessors. Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Second Edition; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) contains much to disagree with, but he does make a persuasive case for the claim that in repudiating the intellectual legacy of the Middle Ages, Enlightenment moralists abandoned the Aristotelean (also Platonic and Stoic) notion that human beings have an objective "natural end"; this led them in the direction of a hedonistic, subjectivistic conception of happiness, making virtually impossible the task of establishing an objective morality and reconciling its demands with those of self-interest. (Even the best thinkers are tainted; in the foundations of John Locke's theory of ethics, for example, we find Aristotelean strands mixed together with hedonism and divine command theory. The divine command theory of ethics becomes most popular precisely when the medieval worldview, with its heritage of Platonic-Aristotelean natural teleology, begins to wane; hence its greater popularity among Protestants than among Catholics. Another legacy of 1277?) It is also in the Enlightenment that natural-rights theory in ethics and proto-Austrian theory in economics, both inherited from medieval thinkers (see, e.g., Murray N. Rothbard's Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume I (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1995)), begin to yield to hedonistic utilitarian approaches. The whole approach to life that Rand calls "Attila-ism" gains new ground in the Enlightenment. In these respects, Objectivism represents a partial recovery of the medieval worldview against its Enlightenment successor. Today's conservatives and communitarians are thus quite right in saying that the secularist rejection of the medieval consensus leads to an undermining of morality - even if their own prescriptions are entirely wrongheaded.

Nor was the Romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment purely irrationalist. Many Romantics found the Enlightenment worldview excessively dispassionate. Leonard Peikoff praises Enlightenment thinkers for their condemnation of "enthusiasm," which he glosses as "irrational passion." (Ominous Parallels, p. 107.) But is that the only sense in which the Enlightenment was suspicious of enthusiasm? In "The Party of Modernity," Kelley praises Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as an exemplar of Enlightenment values (p. 14); but in "Code of the Creator" (David Kelley and Stephen Cox, The Fountainhead: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration (Poughkeepsie: Objectivist Center, 1993), pp. 25-43) - an article that deserves more attention from Objectivists - Kelley admits that Franklin's bourgeois commercial ethic is not particularly inspiring; he calls it "tepid," "sober and respectable," lacking in "passion and exaltation" (pp. 39-40), and compares it unfavourably, in that respect, with the premodern values exemplified by "Achilles and Jesus." There Kelley suggests that Ayn Rand's ethic combines the best of modern and premodern approaches, rather than simply exalting one over the other.

Likewise, Rand found the "Romantic" music and literature of the 19th century far more emotionally engaging than the "Classicist" 18th-century art it displaced; and the Romantic movement in art was a self-conscious attempt to revive the spirit of the medieval romances. Rand said reading Victor Hugo gave her the feeling of entering a cathedral; but cathedrals are a product of medieval culture. She also loved the novels of Dostoyevsky, who was certainly a rebel against the Enlightenment. It's easy to say that Romanticism in art has nothing to do with Romanticism in philosophy; but is it really true? Didn't Rand gain more inspiration from reading Nietzsche - certainly in many ways an anti-Enlightenment philosopher - than from reading, say, Voltaire? Tolkien and Kerouac were both part of the "anti-industrial revolution," but does our Kulturkampf really require us to be at war against Lord of the Rings and On the Road?

Of course, to the extent that the Romantics took themselves to be rebelling against reason per se, rather than against an excessively dispassionate conception of reason, they were confused; but those Enlightenment thinkers who looked on passion per se with suspicion were equally confused. As Kelley observes: "Rand was a romantic realist in her ethics as well as her aesthetic theory. She saw reason in romantic terms, as the source of man's creative powers and imaginative freedom, not their enemy." ("Code of the Creator," p. 40.) In short (and with a tip of the plume to Chris Sciabarra), Objectivism offers a dialectical synthesis of Reason and Romanticism, not a monistic championing of one against the other.

I do not mean to say that Objectivists should uncritically embrace the medievalist critique of the Enlightenment. They should not, any more than they should uncritically embrace the Enlightenment critique of medievalism. Rather, they should recognise that both the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment were eras in which some good things were waxing while others were waning. Most of the praise Objectivists have heaped upon the Enlightenment is entirely well-deserved; if the choice is between Enlightenment values and the values of the religious Right, I will happily fight to the death for Enlightenment values. But as Ayn Rand makes clear in "The Cult of Moral Grayness" (The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 87-92), the Objectivist insistence on black-and-white evaluations applies at the level of principles, not at the level of concrete individuals or historical eras. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the transition from the medieval to the modern period involved no loss whatsoever.

The postmodern worldview represented by the academic Left is a mixed bag too. There's much to dislike in it: relativist philosophy and collectivist politics, sure. But that is hardly the whole story. After all, Rand herself, as I've mentioned, drew great inspiration from Nietzsche, the father of postmodernism. The flaws of postmodernism are simply the unfolding of the skeptical, subjectivist tendencies of the Enlightenment; and its virtues are likewise an organic development of Enlightenment virtues. It is out of libertarian, Enlightenment values, for example, that concern about the exclusion of women and minorities from full participation in society first arose. That's a good thing, and the postmodernists are its contemporary inheritors.

It may be objected that postmodernists complain not only about legal, governmental barriers to such participation, but private, economic-cultural barriers as well. This is true; according to postmodernism, harmful power relations permeate not only the governmental sphere but the private sphere as well. But isn't this true? Don't Objectivists, too, regard cultural forces as formidable obstacles to personal achievement, even when they are not codified in law? Weren't most of Howard Roark's battles in The Fountainhead fought against private power? Don't many of Rand's stories - Ideal, Think Twice, The Little Street - dramatise the soul-destroying effects of non-governmental cultural forces? Didn't The Objectivist give Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique a positive review?

Of course postmodernists regard the free market as the cause of such problems, and increased government control as the cure. On this point Objectivists must part company with them. But just as Objectivists can agree with religious conservatives in condemning relativism, without regarding government programs inculcating morality as the proper response to the problem, so Objectivists can agree with academic leftists in condemning various forms of non-governmental oppression, without signing on to the Left's political agenda. As I've written elsewhere:

Is it not true that the contributions of women, minorities, and nonwestern cultures have traditionally been marginalised and excluded? One needn't want to give George Washington Carver more pages in the history textbooks than George Washington to agree that the PC folks are on to something here. And look at the anti-Muslim, pro-war hysteria that's sweeping the country these days. The PC crowd, bless 'em, are certainly on the right side of that one.

But don't the cultural Left's concerns sometimes take bizarre, extreme, ridiculously exaggerated forms? Yup. But every cause gets defended in bizarre, extreme, ridiculously exaggerated forms. If Objectivism as a whole shouldn't be judged on the basis of those Objectivists who have called for nuking the Middle East, or who have claimed that libertarians are the moral equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini, then the cultural left as a whole shouldn't be judged on the basis of the loonier remarks of some of its proponents. I can testify that there are a great many academic leftists with an authentic respect for reason, science, and individualism. Not all environmentalists seek the destruction of industrial civilisation. Not all multiculturalists regard Western culture as inherently oppressive and worthless. Not all feminists are haters of men. Not all modern artists are haters of the mind. I feel like asking those who perpetuate these stereotypes: how many academic leftists do you actually know?

As for the phenomenon of "political correctness," a) academic leftists are by no means monolithic in its support, b) some aspects of political correctness are actually defensible (see my piece "One Cheer for Political Correctness," available online at, and c) given that the Objectivist movement has had its own problems with political correctness, Objectivists can hardly take its existence as sufficient reason to reject the cultural left per se.

I'm also disturbed to see Kelley describing sociobiologists like Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson as spokesmen for the Enlightenment viewpoint and defenders of the "integrity of science." ("The Party of Modernity," p. 16.) Wilson in particular is a classic example of what Rand called a "mystic of muscle," committed to biological determinism and insisting that cultural factors are merely an epiphenomenon of our genetic makeup. The postmodern suggestion - at least in its more moderate formulations - that race and gender are social constructions seems far more in harmony with Objectivism, which has always insisted that apparently innocent descriptive concepts may be freighted with insidious ethical and political baggage.

Is there plenty to despise in premodern culture? Hell, yes. Is there plenty to despise in postmodern culture? Hell, yes. Is it important to uphold an integrated, consistent alternative to the errors of both? Hell, yes. Are the ideas of Ayn Rand a crucial signpost to such an alternative? Again: hell, yes. None of that am I disputing. Nor do I have any animus against Enlightenment culture; rather a deep love. Above all I cherish and revere the civilized precision with which 18th-century thinkers wrote. Moroever, I am in enthusiastic agreement with Peikoff's judgment that America's Founding Fathers "snatched a country from the jaws of history at the last possible moment." (Ominous Parallels, p. 115.) By the time the Enlightenment's political branches began flourishing, its philosophical roots were already withered.

All I am saying, then, is that it is a mistake for Objectivists (and their fellow travelers, like myself) to conceptualise themselves simply as defenders of Enlightenment culture against its premodern and postmodern rivals. That is a one-sided view of what Rand's philosophic legacy is all about. Once more to quote Kelley against Kelley:

The conventional ethos, then, is made up of three identifiable strands - the aristocratic, the religious, and the bourgeois .... [Rand's work] speaks to every aspect of this ethos, and provides a comprehensive and internally consistent alternative to it. ... She employs many of the symbols, and endorses many of the virtues, associated with the strands I've described. But she gives all of them a radically new meaning, a new place in her vision of the meaning of life and the heroic potential of human nature. ("Code of the Creator," pp. 31-32.)

In the same way, then, and for the same reasons, our task is to develop an approach that speaks to all three major aspects of Western culture - premodern, modern, and postmodern - rather than to champion one to the exclusion of the other two.

Wisdom is the rule of reason over irrational impulse.

- Augustine

The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them.

- Foucault

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